This article was cross-posted on the Georgetown Progressive.
I’m not going to lie—I was thrilled to see President Obama speak here at Georgetown last week. I took a gleeful picture of my ticket; I sent excited voicemails and texts to my family and friends; I skipped class to wait outside McDonough for two hours. I was freezing and hungry, but I hardly noticed. I was going to see President Obama for the first time.
At the same time, I wasn’t naïve about the speech he would give. I didn’t expect him to declare an all-out ban on oil imports, to call for the shutting down of all the nuclear power plants in the United States, or even to announce a new comprehensive climate-change bill. Not only did I understand that such demands would be unprecedented for Obama, for whom environmental issues have never been first priority, but I also acknowledged to myself that those demands would be unrealistic given the current legislature. So while I was thrilled at the chance to see Obama, I wasn’t idealistic about what he would say.
Yet I found the speech disappointing. I jumped to my feet like everyone else, cheering and clapping, when Obama walked onstage, but as he spoke, my excitement ebbed and was slowly replaced by frustration and ennui.
As a recap, Obama used this speech to set out his plan for United States energy policy. As he described it, the plan focuses on two things: “first, finding and producing more oil at home; second, reducing our overall dependence on oil with cleaner alternative fuels and greater efficiency.” To accomplish the first, he called for more off-shore oil drilling, particularly in Alaska and in the Mid- and South Atlantic states. He also declared that we would focus on more stable countries for oil exports, like Canada, Mexico, and Brazil.
For the second, he declared that the U.S. would cut its oil imports by one third from 2008 levels in a decade, and that by 2035, eighty percent of our electricity would come from clean energy (which, according to his speech, includes natural gas, “clean coal,” and nuclear energy). He also called for continued pressure on automakers to increase production of fuel-efficient vehicles, for new programs to help Americans make their homes and businesses more energy-efficient, and for federal agencies to switch to 100% alternative fuel, hybrid, or electric vehicles by 2015.
Many environmentalists, including a rather self-righteous columnist at Grist and a more thoughtful writer at Treehugger, lambasted Obama for his energy plan itself. Greenpeace criticized him for supporting drilling, coal, and nuclear power, all of which entail risks that may offset their benefits. Treehugger argued that the call for reduced oil imports was a “political stunt,” since we have already reduced imports significantly since 2008 levels. Grist lamented that Obama did not emphasize rail infrastructure and public transit enough, or even mention a gas tax.
But although I agree with these columnists on many points, particularly regarding Obama’s support for drilling, coal, and nuclear power, this is not why I found his speech so inadequate.
What disappointed me about Obama’s speech was that he continues to refuse to discuss environmentalism in any terms other than economic and national. He spoke exclusively in terms of lowering oil prices and creating jobs, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, making more money for the United States and increasing the United States’ competitiveness with other countries. He made no mention of the value of environmentalism in and of itself or of environmentalism as a moral responsibility.
To discuss environmentalism in purely economic terms suggests that the only price we pay for our unsustainable livelihoods is financial. “We’re already paying a price for our inaction,” Obama declared—but he described that price as higher oil prices, fewer jobs, and weaker businesses. I am not suggesting that Obama should have left out the financial price. In fact, I support incentivizing environmentalism by demonstrating how much money one can save by living sustainably. But by not referring at all to the harm that we do to other species, to the land, and to our resources, Obama left out the most important argument for environmentalism. He could have included at least one statement that mentioned deforestation, land degradation, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, water and soil pollution, and issues of waste disposal.
To speak in purely nationalistic terms is perhaps even more harmful to our understanding of environmentalism. Obama emphasized that the United States has “fallen behind” other countries, asserting, “Other countries are now exporting technology we pioneered and they’re going after the jobs that come with it because they know that the countries that lead the twenty-first century clean energy economy will be the countries that lead the twenty-first century global economy.” He expressed unhappiness that China and Germany have surpassed us in renewable energy production. He argued that “we boast one critical, renewable resource that the rest of the world can’t match: American ingenuity.”
Any environmental issue, though—whether it’s overdependence on fossil fuels or the other issues that I listed above—will need to be solved by all nations of the world working together. No country will be able to tackle any one of them alone. To make real progress on these problems, we will have to recognize that we occupy this planet together, regardless of political, cultural, or social boundaries. I understand that competitiveness is part of Obama’s new “Winning the Future” strategy, but in the case of environmentalism, this strategy does more harm than good. We should be lauding China’s and Germany’s progress and seeking advice from them, rather than viewing that progress negatively because we haven’t had such success. We should be glad that other countries are using sustainable technology that we pioneered. And we should use that technology ourselves because of the benefits it will bring to the entire planet, not because it will help us remain an economic superpower.
Still, I wonder if Obama may have spoken in this context of economics and competitiveness because he believes that’s what we want to hear. It’s quite possible that he feels that he can only reach voters by appealing to their financial and nationalist concerns. If that’s the case, then we should take a second look at a comment he made a comment in the middle of his speech. Encouraging us to be responsible consumers and raise demand for alternative vehicles, he pointed out, “So you’ve got power in this process, and the decisions you make individually in your lives will say something about how serious we are when it comes to energy independence.”
We have power in other aspects of environmental policy, too—not just in the process of buying alternative vehicles. If we show Obama that we care about environmentalism in and of itself, that we recognize its importance in terms other than how much money it saves us and the status it brings to our country, then perhaps he will address the inherent value of environmentalism as well. Then, the next time he speaks, we can be thrilled to see him without feeling guilty about that excitement afterward.